Concert Review: Old 97's - A Cinco de Mayo Celebration at the Cubby Bear - Saturday, 5/5/12

Concert Review:  Old 97's - A Cinco de Mayo Celebration at the Cubby Bear - Saturday, 5/5/12

Noon Cubs start at Wrigley + Cinco de Mayo + Old 97’s live at Cubby Bear = A drinky Saturday night in Wrigleyville

It cannot be understated how drunk people were in Wrigleyville on Saturday.

Within thirty seconds of getting out of my cab on the city’s north side around 9PM, I immediately saw two people passed out on the sidewalk within a three block stretch of Clark St.  A third passed out, fell off the sidewalk and into the street.

And that should begin to put into perspective the state of many concertgoers on one of Lincoln Park’s biggest party nights of the calendar year:  Cinco de Mayo.

Hailing from Dallas, Texas, the Old 97’s are no strangers to Chicago with a dedicated and substantial following.  They’ve not only recorded for Bloodshot Records but remain a longstanding favorite of WXRT.  Several of their songs are littered with references to the Windy City and the band always puts on a good show.  They started out as a Texas bar band… so they’re pretty adept at working an overly, shall we say, “rambunctious”  audience. It is virtually impossible to have a bad time at an Old 97’s show and therefore they were the perfect choice for Cubby Bear’s Cinco de Mayo celebration.

To reiterate:  this crowd was drunk.  Very drunk.  But at least around me, near the side of the stage, they were also fairly well-behaved all things considered.

The band played it pretty safe for the majority of the set, saving their surprises for their outstanding encore (we’ll be coming back to this).

Lead singer/guitarist Rhett Miller led the group through a story of love amidst less than ideal circumstances with “Brown Haired Daughter” second in the set (the first track on last July’s The Grand Theatre, Vol. 2).  It sounded like the band may have been battling some sound issues early on (it felt like I could barely hear Ken Bethea’s guitar during the first few songs) but kept it together.

Despite their label as an alt-country band, it has always been clear that the Old 97’s also have major pop influences.  2001’s Fight Songs is a great example of that and from it both “Lonely Holiday” and “Murder (Or a Heart Attack)” were standouts on Saturday.  Miller referenced a number of couples who apparently got engaged the last time Old 97’s played in Chicago at the Vic so it was appropriate that he followed up that story with arguably the band’s finest ballad in “Question.”

Bassist Murry Hammond took his turn on lead vocals Saturday too (especially on some of the more country leaning fare) and while I get the feeling that Miller is responsible for the band’s often poppier sound, Hammond really seems to be at the heart of their core, country feel.  More honky-tonk than pop, Hammond led the band through a rousingly raucous rendition of “W. TX Teardrops.”

At this point, I’ve probably seen the Old 97’s enough times to have seen them on an off night.  So it’s most certainly to the band’s credit that I couldn’t tell you which night that would be.  “Champaign, Illinois,” while not inaccurate, acted as a pretty scathing commentary on our neighbors to the south and quite frankly, it took the evening’s mood from drunken Cinco de Mayo revelry to full-on, Texas fueled hootenany.

But as good as Saturday’s show was, it was the encore that made it great.  The rather substantial number of concertgoers who called it a night following “Four Leaf Clover” to close the main set completely missed out.

Rhett Miller got things started solo acoustic with an energetic version of “The El” from his 2002 solo debut The Instigator.  Lines like “Let’s say you’re in Chicago and you’re rattling along on the el” ignited quite the sing-a-long.  Rhett continued solo with his take on the standard country ballad “Wreck of the Old 97,” the song from which the band takes it’s name and also a song he claimed to have played for the first time only in April at an 80th birthday celebration for Johnny Cash in Austin, Texas.

The covers continued with Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” and by the time the band got to Marty Robbins’ “El Paso,” drunken revelers had begun making their best efforts to find their way home.  Those still standing took over vocal duties admirably on “Barrier Reef” to close out the encore and the show.  While those who left heard some great music Saturday, they missed the true show in the wee hours of Sunday morning’s encore.

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